Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning Equus is as unsettling today as it must have been when it premiered almost 40 years ago. ---Its violence and disturbing themes make it one of those dangerous productions that even professional theater companies hesitate to mount—so it’s a bold choice for a college production.
But the Westminster Players pull it off tastefully—perhaps a bit too tastefully, to tell the truth. The show comes with a lot of baggage; people often make a big deal out of the fact that the play includes nudity. Westminster’s decision to stage that scene behind a diaphanous traveler scrim provides a safe psychological barrier between the audience and the infamous nude scene, but by the same token, it also blunts the full shock and horror of the climactic sequence.
OK, no reason to beat around the bush: Equus has been around since the 1970s, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. The entire show leads up to Alan Strang using a hoof-pick in a fit of religious frenzy to stab out the eyes of a stableful of horses. The fact that he’s naked at the time is significant, but utterly non-pornographic. Strang’s ecstatically brutal act is the payoff of the whole narrative; making use of stagecraft to rein in the impact of its violent perversity is a mistake.
Not that the set design was necessarily intended to protect the delicate sensibilities of the audience. Throughout the production, the gauzy curtain is employed to produce a heightened, hallucinatory or dreamlike effect—and this was likely the designers’ intent during the horse-blinding scene. Spencer Brown’s lighting effects are truly impressive, and Nina Vought’s wire-and-fiber horsehead masks are inspired.
The role of Alan Strang is a rare scenery-chewing opportunity, and freshman theater major Wyatt McNeil takes his with relish; exhibiting a range from sullen seething to incendiary, over-the-top raving, McNeil turns in an uninhibited performance that gives us hope for his future potential onstage. Senior BFA candidate Connor Montgomery reflects similar force; his cerebral tics and mannerisms reveal a studied approach to the conflicted character of psychiatrist Martin Dysart.
Under Michael Vought’s encouraging direction, both leads attain the pinnacle of their personal intensity at many points during the show. These performances are undoubtedly stirring, but had they been throttled back a little in the first act, the climactic bits in the second would come across with greater force.
Special mention must be given to Braden Smith, whose physical and animalistic performance as Nugget, the very special horse, had us all champing at the bit.
Equus @ Westminster College Jewitt Center, 1840 S. 1300 East, 801-832-2457, March 24-April 2, $10. WestminsterCollege.edu